The Complete Backpacking Checklist

The Complete Backpacking Checklist

This article lists everything you need for your backpacking checklist. Like planning, knowing what to bring and how to cram it all in your pack may seem a little complicated at first, but after you’ve done it a time or two, it’ll be almost second nature.

If you are new to backpacking read our backpacking beginners guide, keep in mind that you will need to invest in some gear. Good quality is essential, and not cheap. However, once you have all your basic gear listed on your backpacking checklist, backcountry camping becomes a very cheap vacation. All you’ll need to spend money on is gas, wilderness permits, and a few bucks to rent a bear canister if you need one, and you’re good to go.

Backpacking Gear

I’ll start here with the first thing that should be on your backpacking checklist:

A backpack:

Let’s begin with the obvious; this is called backpacking, right? You’ll be having a lot of stuff o carry, so you need a place to carry it all. And no, this is not the kind of backpack you used for carrying your books to school.

TETON Sports Scout 3400 Internal Frame Backpack; High-Performance Backpack for Backpacking, Hiking, Camping
TETON Sports Scout 3400 Internal Frame Backpack; High-Performance Backpack for Backpacking, Hiking, Camping

Those can be used as great daypacks, but there is no way you will be able to fit your tent, sleeping bag, food, and clothes in one of those little things!

Your pack is the most important thing you will need to buy for this hobby, so choose wisely. A pack that sits comfortably will cause less strain on your back, allowing you to have a more pleasant trip all around. You may read our article on the best hiking pack buying guide.

At your local camping store, measure your torso length to fit yourself for a pack. A good store will have display models you can play around with. Try them on, adjust them to how you will be wearing it, throw in some weights (they should have some there for you) and carry them around the store for a while to see if it will be comfortable.

A good backpack should have plenty of padding on the shoulder and hip straps, and if adjusted correctly, the majority of the weight will be carried by your hips, not your back. While the good fit is the most important component, there are some other options to consider.

Backpacks come in different sizes, and while you want a pack that will fit all your gear, you don’t want one that is too big and will have a lot of empty space. Unless you plan on camping for longer than a week (and please don’t if you are new at this), 3,000 to 5,000 cubic inches should provide plenty of space for overnight camping. Also, these packs come in two different main types: external and internal frame. External frame packs tend to be cheaper, so many beginners start with these.

Although you can carry a lot of weight with them, they are not very good for difficult terrain. Internal frame packs are far superior in terms of balance and freedom of movement—and although they will hug your back and make it all sweaty, they are far more comfortable. If you have the money to invest in a good pack, this is the way to go.

Tent:

Unless you are a hardy minimalist and want to sleep under the stars, you will need to get a tent. Personally, I am not hardcore enough to leave my sleeping self at the mercy to bugs and other curious wildlife. Read our exclusive Tent Buying guide

LETHMIK Backpacking Tent, Instant Automatic pop up Tent, 2-3 Person, Lightweight Double Layer Camping Tent for Outdoor Hunting, Hiking, Climbing, Travel
LETHMIK Backpacking Tent, Instant Automatic pop up Tent, 2-3 Person, Lightweight Double Layer Camping Tent for Outdoor Hunting, Hiking, Climbing, Travel

If you have an old, dusty Coleman tent you bought at Wal-Mart stashed in the back of your garage somewhere, and you think you might as well us that since you’ve already got it, think again. Leave that spider nest where it’s at, hike yourself back out to that camping store, and get a tent specifically designed for backpacking.

Trust me, there is a huge difference. Backpacking tents are much lighter than their cheaper cousins: when hiking up the side of a mountain, would you rather be carrying a ten-pound tent or one that weighs closer to three? The lightest tents are the one- or two-person three-season tents. Unless you plan on camping on snow (which can be done, if you have snowshoes) or somewhere with very cold nights, a three-season tent should be fine.

If you plan on camping somewhere relatively warm, you may want to check out the tents which mostly mesh. Not only are they super light, but there is also something really peaceful about being able to look up at the stars while drifting off to sleep—while still being at least somewhat protected from nibbling critters.

Once you’ve found that tent that’s right for your needs, though, don’t throw away that old Coleman tent! Due to their small size, backpacking tents do feel a bit cramped: use that Coleman for car camping, when your site is walking distance from your car. Then you won’t have far to carry that bulky tent, and your ice chest full of beer.

Sleeping bag:

Another important essential. A good sleeping bag helps you get a good night’s sleep, and you definitely need your rest after all that energy you’ll be burning to tromp around through the wilderness. While getting a good-quality sleeping bag from a camping store is not as essential as getting a good tent, it is still preferable. Read our sleeping bag and mat buying guide

MalloMe Camping Sleeping Bag - 3 Season Warm & Cool Weather - Summer, Spring, Fall, Lightweight, Waterproof for Adults & Kids - Camping Gear Equipment, Traveling, and Outdoors
MalloMe Camping Sleeping Bag – 3 Season Warm & Cool Weather – Summer, Spring, Fall, Lightweight, Waterproof for Adults & Kids – Camping Gear Equipment, Traveling, and Outdoors

If you can afford it, down sleeping bags offer the best in terms of weight, space, and comfort. Synthetic down is slightly heavier, and although every extra ounce adds up when you’ve got to carry it all, they are a close second to down.

If you are going to invest in a down sleeping bag, though, make sure you take care of it! Although it will pack down very small for the trail, do not leave it packed up like that for storage. Leave it loosely packed, or better yet, hung up, the rest of the year. If you leave it condensed it the down will bunch together and get lumpy, and your brand new nice sleeping bag will be permanently ruined.

When shopping for a bag, you will notice that they are rated by different temperatures. Since weight is always a consideration, choose the lightest bag you can get away with. If you don’t think you will ever be crazy enough to go camping in the dead of winter, don’t bother getting a cold season bag. You will be sweating in a bag that is designed for 10 degrees if it only gets down to 40 degrees during the night. Get a three-season bag, or, if you think you will always be camping in fairly decent weather, get a warm-weather one.

• Sleeping pad:

As cozy as your nice warm new fluffy sleeping bag maybe, you are not going to just throw it on the bottom of your tent and plop down. That ground is still hard, and cold! And you will feel it through the entire night. A sleeping pad will keep you warmer, and much more comfortable.

A simple foam pad will do in a pinch if that’s all you can do, but if you’re serious about doing a lot of backpacking you’ll eventually want to get a good self-inflating one, such as those made by Therm-a-Rest. They are lightweight, pack down very small, and although they are thin, when you lay on them you can’t feel the ground underneath you at all. Like tents and sleeping bags, these are rated by temperature: choose the smallest and lightest one that will work for your needs. You should know the drill by now, right? And if you do bring along the inflatable type, don’t forget the repair kit, in case you get a hole or tear while on the trail.

Cookware:

No, don’t go pulling your pots out of your cupboard! Camping cookware is small and lightweight, and many have handles that fold in for ease of packing.

MalloMe Camping Cookware Mess Kit Backpacking Gear & Hiking Outdoors Bug Out Bag Cooking Equipment Cookset | Lightweight, Compact, Durable Pot Pan Bowls
MalloMe Camping Cookware Mess Kit Backpacking Gear & Hiking Outdoors Bug Out Bag Cooking Equipment Cookset | Lightweight, Compact, Durable Pot Pan Bowls

Titanium is your ultralight choice, but it is also ultra-expensive, and there are cheaper options available. What kind and how many pots and pans you bring will depend on what you are cooking. Frying pans are nice if you plan on using them, but we’ve gotten along just fine on many trips with just a single cook pot.

• Eatware:

OK, I know that’s not a real word. But you get the point. This, too, will depend on what meals you are planning. Often all we bring are some utensils (a fork and a spoon for each of us) and a couple of mugs for hot drinks. Many meals can be eaten directly from the cooking pot, and the freeze-dried backpacking meals are designed to be eaten right out of their package. Bringing plates and bowls means not only more to carry, but more to clean. But if you think you will need them, by all means, bring them along. All these, too, are available in ultra-cool titanium, but the thick plastic ones you can get in the camping stores are ultra-cheap, and pretty durable, though they can start to melt if they touch the side of a hot pan for too long.

• Food:

Well, you don’t expect to live on boiled water the whole time, do you? Plus, you need an excuse to use that brand new titanium spork. Planning your meals for your trip gets a section of its own, so keep reading. I just put it on the list here so you wouldn’t forget about it. If you want to know how to select the best food for backpacking read our article on Backpacking Food Guide

• Bear canister:

If it is required on the trail, you may be able to rent one at the ranger station if you don’t have one of your own.

• Camp soap:

Direct 2 Boater Biodegradable Camp Soap - 8 oz - for Fresh & Salt Water - for Hands, Dishes & Clothing - No Dies or Fragrances
Direct 2 Boater Biodegradable Camp Soap – 8 oz – for Fresh & Salt Water – for Hands, Dishes & Clothing – No Dies or Fragrances

It’s hard to clean oatmeal out of your only pot with only water.

Do not bring dish detergent from home, it pollutes the water sources. Instead, bring camp soap, which is concentrated, biodegradable and works on both your pans and yourself.

A small bottle will usually last you several trips.

• Water purification system:

This is essential, there is no way you will be able to carry all the water you need with you! Water is heavy, and you will be drinking a lot of it. And do not drink wilderness water without filtering it; that is just asking to get sick.

LifeStraw Personal Water Filter
LifeStraw Personal Water Filter

There are some different options when it comes to water purification. The first is tablets, which are made of chlorine, iodine, or oxidizers. These are lightweight and easy to use: you just drop the tablets in the water, wait about twenty minutes, and drink.

Many, however, dislike the time lag and the taste these tablets leave behind and opt for a water filter. (Even if you have a water filter, it’s still a good idea to bring along some tablets as a backup in case the filter malfunctions.) There is an amazing array of water filters out there. When shopping, look for one that is lightweight (preferably less than a pound), easy to use, sturdy, and that has readily available replacement cartridges.

A newer option is the electronic purification “pens” which use UV-C light rays to instantly kill bacteria. Unlike the filter, you do not have to pump the water through; just the water with the device and press a button. These are much smaller and lightweight than a filter, but they don’t filter out particles, so don’t improve the taste the way a filter does.

• Something to carry water in:

You never know how long it will be until you come across your next water source, so you will always be carrying some water with you. Plastic water bottles are bulky and break easily on the rugged trail, but they will work if that is all you have. The thicker plastic bottles (such as those made by Nalgene) are much more durable and come in various sizes.

We always bring at least a couple of these along, but we never go without our water bladders. These are flexible plastic bags with a hose and mouthpiece attached; the most popular ones are those made by Platypus. We put them directly in our pack–in fact, many packs have a pouch inside just for this purpose—and attach the hose to the shoulder strap. With the amount of water you need to consume on the trail, the accessibility of these is ideal. They are lightweight and not very expensive, so I highly recommend getting at least one.

Backpacking Clothes

• Clothing:

What you will be wearing during your trip is an important thing to consider. You may read our article on Camping Clothing Guide

Don’t bother bringing anything stylish; it will get destroyed, and after a day or so of hiking, you are going to look like hell no matter what you do. So pack for practicality. Clothes for backpacking should be lightweight, sturdy, and dry quickly. Cotton is not recommended: do you have any idea for long it takes wet jeans to dry while you are wearing them?

Opt for polyester, nylon, fleece or spandex instead. There is quite a bit of “backpacking” clothing out there. Much of it contains a “wicking” material which pulls moisture (such as sweat) away from the skin. Due to its price, you will probably not go out and buy an entire outfit of this material. However, a few pairs of thin wicking socks are wonderful to wear under your thicker socks. A lot of exercise clothing also wicks moisture and may be a cheaper alternative.

When packing, go with as little clothing as you can get away with. Everything except socks and underwear can be worn more than once, you are going to stink anyway; this is not a clean venture. One pair each of pants and shorts can last you a few days. If you can find them, the convertible pants that zip off into shorts are awesome: I wore mine through my whole trip the last excursion I went on. Bring both short sleeve and long sleeve tops, and at least one warm jacket. (Fleece jackets are warm, lightweight, and don’t take much space.) Plan on dressing in layers. And don’t forget something to sleep in!

• Boots:

I included these separately from clothing because these are the most important things you will be wearing. If you don’t want to spend your money on expensive backpacking clothes, that’s fine, but please invest in some good hiking boots!

NORTIV 8 Men's Ankle High Waterproof Hiking Boots Outdoor Lightweight Shoes Backpacking Trekking Trails
NORTIV 8 Men’s Ankle High Waterproof Hiking Boots Outdoor Lightweight Shoes Backpacking Trekking Trails

Your feet will be carrying a lot of weight over an extended period, and trust me, they will be thanking you if you are wearing good boots. And will be complaining very loudly through your entire trip if you do not. Trust me, I learned this one the hard way, and I have found I am a much more pleasant and less grouchy traveling companion without pinched toes.

Make sure they are durable and give ample ankle support: lightweight hiking boots won’t do here, opt for the midweight or extended backpacking types. Some include a waterproof liner (such as Gore-Tex), which make the bootless breathable, but keep your feet nice and dry even if you trudge through a stream. Shop around, try them on, walk around in them, and make sure they are comfortable. Buy them at least a few weeks before their first trip, so you will have time to break them in.

• Medical kit:

Cuts, scratches, blisters, bruises and the like are common on the trail—don’t be surprised if you are pretty beat up by the end of the trip. You will need medical supplies to handle these small injuries as well as major ones. Information on what should be included in your medical kit can be found on the Backpacking Safety page.

• Sunblock:

Even if you are not hiking in a hot area, sun exposure over a long period can still cause a major burn. Save your skin, and bring some along.

Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel Non-Greasy Moisturizing Sunscreen Lotion with Broad Spectrum SPF 50, Water-Resistant
Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel Non-Greasy Moisturizing Sunscreen Lotion with Broad Spectrum SPF 50, Water-Resistant

We usually transfer some from a tube into a smaller container; you really don’t need all that much of it. I recommend the “sport” type or something that is at least waterproof. Otherwise, you will probably sweat it all off pretty quickly, and sweaty sunblock in the eyes is never fun.

• Insect repellent:

I am the mosquito magnet, if there is one mosquito in the area, it will bite me and nobody else. So I slather this stuff on whenever I hike.

It stinks, but the mosquitoes and other bugs think it stinks too, and personally, I would rather stink than an itch. The best ones are those with DEET (or N-diethyl-m-toluamide—yes, I just Googled that); we actually use a DEET concentrate. Be forewarned, though: on my last trip I had the misfortune of encountering apparently DEET-resistant mosquitoes. Most of the time, however, this stuff is very effective.

Toiletries:

This includes travel-sized essentials such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, lip balm, and toilet paper. Forget the shampoo and body wash: only biodegradable camp soap is allowed on the trail, so you will be washing with that. Bring a small hairbrush if you need some, but leave the make-up at home. Really, who would you be trying to impress, the chipmunks?

A shovel:

Unless you are required to pack out your toilet paper, you will need to bury it at least six inches. A kid’s beach shovel or a small plastic gardening spade are lightweight and work just fine. You can find our best camping shovel review here

• Plastic bags:

You need something to carry out your garbage with. Self-sealing Ziploc bags work best.

• Identification:

All members of your party should always carry some form of photo ID with them. You never know what can happen.

Wilderness/fire permit:

If you are hiking in an area that requires one, you will need to have it with you at all times. Some areas even require you to have it displayed at all times, so you may need to get a plastic cardholder to attach to the pack of someone in the party.

Rope or cord:

About 100 feet of strong, lightweight cord should do. If you are not using a bear canister, you will need it to hang your food overnight. You can also use it as a clothesline for wet clothing, and it’s good to have in case you should ever need it in an emergency.

Sunglasses:

A good idea to have along.

• Flashlight:

A flashlight is an indispensable staple for any type of camping. We use the tiny LED flashlights which can be clipped to a keychain. They are very small, bright, lightweight, and long-lasting. Check our Dorcy 41-2515 Floating Waterproof LED Flashlight Review if you are planning to buy a flashlight.

• Cell phone:

In the majority of the backcountry, you will not have a cell signal. However, should you have an emergency, someone may need to hike back towards civilization until they get a signal and call for help. At the very least, have one in your car parked at the trailhead.

If that isn’t already enough to bring, here are a few more suggestions. These are not essential; however, they can help make your trip a little more comfortable if you have space and inclination:

• Map, field guide, or description of the trail:

Most trails are pretty well marked (we’ll go into trial markers in a later section), so this is not a necessity. Still, it’s not a bad idea to have one in case you get lost. If you bring a map, keep it in a waterproof bag or case.

• Compass:

If you know how to use one, this is another thing that isn’t a bad idea to have, though it is obviously more useful if you have a map.

• Extra blankets:

You may need these, depending on the warmth of your sleeping bag and the overnight temperatures where you will be hiking. Fleece blankets are fairly cheap, lightweight, warm, and pack down small.

• A day pack:

If you are doing a “base camp” type trip, this would be useful to have along. You can leave the majority of your gear at camp, but pack along things like snacks and water for your day hikes. Many backpacks even come with detachable day packs.

• Camera:

Backpacking provides great scenery, so great photo opportunities. If you are a photo enthusiast, you don’t want to be without your camera on a trip. My husband even lugged his eight-pound tripod on one of our trips; obviously, not everyone is that much of a photo nut. (He did get some great shots, though.) And if you’re not yet into the digital age, don’t forget the film as well.

• Binoculars:

Not necessary, but cool to have.

• Sandals:

It’s kind of a pain to have to put on your hiking boots just to go out and take a leak in the middle of the night. Plus boots are heavy and bulky, and it’s nice to have something that will let your feet breathe while walking around your campsite. Water shoes like Tevas are great for this, but cheap convenience store flip-flops work fine, too.

• GPS device:

If you know how to use one, this is good to have in case you get lost, or one member of the party gets severely injured and somebody else has to hike out for help. Read Our Hiking GPS buying guide for more information.

Knife and/or axe:

You will probably not be chopping firewood, but some trails are better maintained than others. You may need to chop through some undergrowth across the trail if you can’t get around it. Or, depending on your meal plan, you may need a knife for cooking. If you choose to bring something, opt for one that is small and lightweight. Even a Leatherman or Swiss army knife can come in handy.

• Towel:

It’s useful to bring at least one, for drying yourself, cookware, or anything else that gets wet. Don’t grab one of your plush bath towels, find a small camping towel. These are super-light, absorb a ton of water, and dry amazingly fast.

Moist towelettes:

Individually wrapped moist towelettes can seem like an amazing luxury on the trail. Even if you come across some lakes on your hike, many of these are snowmelt and are far too cold for full immersion. When going for days without a bath or shower, being able to wipe yourself down with something clean and moist can seem like a godsend.

• Tissues:

If you tend to get allergies, you might want to bring along at least one pocket-sized pack.

• Tent footprint:

If you’ve spent all that money on a nice tent, you want to be able to use it for many trips to come. Many tents have footprints which are sized to its size and shape which can be purchased separately.

• Raingear:

Check the weather report before you go, and pack it if you need it. This includes a rainproof cover to put over your pack to keep the gear inside dry. Many tents come with a rainfly which can be left at home unless needed.

• Stuff sacks:

Pack small items like utensils and condiments into smaller nylon sacks to keep them from wandering loosely around your pack.

Watch:

It’s likely that you won’t be on any sort of time schedule on the trail, but if you plan to be up at certain times or just generally like to keep track of the time, bring a rugged watch along.

• Fishing gear/license: If it’s allowed on the trail and you plan on doing some.

• Playing cards/travel games: If you want. Keep it something small and lightweight.

• Hiking poles: If you think you’ll need them.

• Gloves: Especially nice if it’s cold in the mornings.

Extra shoelaces.

• Gaiters: These are waterproof “leggings” that strap around your legs over your boots. If you have waterproof boots, you can strap these puppies on and wade knee-deep in a stream and still have dry feet.

• Flare gun or Personal Locator Beacon: It is not bad to have one of these in case of serious emergencies, where you will need to signal for help. A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is a small transmitter than can send out a distress signal to satellites. Unfortunately, they tend to be heavy (about a pound) and are will likely cost you over five hundred dollars. But if you are camping on snow in avalanche-prone areas, it may be a wise investment.

Now that you’ve gathered everything you need, likely by now strewn across your living room floor, its time to cram all of it into your pack. If you are traveling with other people, it’s easiest to gather everyone’s gear in one place and pack together. While each person, of course, can carry their own personal items, such as their clothing and sleeping bag, there are many items that are shared. These include things like the tent (or tents, depending on the size of your party), stove, and water filtration. Try to divide the weight as evenly as possible; it’s hardly fair to make one person carry all the heavy gear for everybody else. Not all packs need to necessarily weigh the same: different people can comfortably carry different amounts depending on their size and strength, so take this into consideration while loading up.

How you pack your bag is important, as the weight distribution will affect its ease of carrying. If you are using an internal frame pack, begin by putting your sleeping bag in first, this will form the base for all your other gear. If you are using an external frame pack, your sleeping back will be attached to the bottom of the pack. In either case, pack your lightest gear towards the bottom. Your heaviest items should be packed higher, close to your back and centered between your shoulder blades.

This will help keep the weight centered on your hips, saving your back unnecessary strain. However, if you plan to wander off the trail into some more uneven terrain during the course of your trip, you may want to repack the heavier items a little lower; lowering the center of gravity of the pack in this way provides better balance. Also, women and people of shorter stature may feel more comfortable with packing the heavier items a little lower.

Mid-weight items should be packed behind your heavy items and in the top of the pack. Although I realize all the loops and straps on the outside of packs look very impressive, try to attach as few items as possible to the outside of your pack. Stuff swinging around out there behind you can interfere with balance. Items which you may need during the day should be packed where they are easily accessible. These include things such as small snacks, sunglasses, sunblock, insect repellent, your first-aid kit, toilet paper and shovel, your trail map if you have one, and water bottles.

If you are using a water bladder, pack this in last towards the top of the pack, run the hose out through a small opening (you may need to leave a small space if your pack doesn’t have one for this purpose) and clip the end of it to the shoulder strap. Space is essential, so use it wisely. You don’t want items shifting around while on the trail; stuff every nook and cranny tight. Stuff small items around your larger stuff and into any hollow compartments. For instance, that empty space in your cooking pots or mugs can be filled with utensils or socks.

Once you are all packed up, tighten all your external compression straps (the ones that wrap around the outside of the pack) as much as you can. This will keep everything nice and snug in there. Try putting the pack on, then adjust the hip and shoulder straps until they are comfortable. The pack should feel balanced and not unwieldy:

if one side feels heavier than the other, or if it feels like the pack is pulling too far back even after pulling the shoulder straps nice and tight, you may need to pull some things out and make adjustments. In fact, you may have to pack and repack your bag a few times to figure out what feels the most comfortable for you. This is why it is best to get it all packed up at home before hitting the trail.

We always pack up the night before, excluding only the clothes we will be wearing the first day. That way, when we crawl out of bed at some unholy hour before dawn to get out to the trail nice and early, all we need to do is throw the packs in the trunk and we are on our way.

The weight of your pack will vary depending on the length of your trip, and the number of members in your party who can help split the weight. After packing up, weigh yourself, then weigh yourself again immediately with the pack to calculate the weight of the pack. In general, it’s a good idea that the pack weight not exceed 20 % of your body weight. (To figure out your pack weight/body weight ratio, divide your pack weight by your body weight and multiply by 100.) Those who are more physically fit may be able to handle up to 30% of their body weight. However, advocates of “ultralight backpacking” strive for something closer to 15% or even 10%. This is certainly more comfortable; there are many resources in books and online with tips on reducing pack weight that is definitely worth checking out.

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